The Pride and Disgrace

Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation.

On August 10th, 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was enacted. It was the quick response from America’s politicians to the attack upon a U.S. naval vessel off the coast of Vietnam by torpedo boats from the communist regime of North Vietnam. That attack had occurred on August 2nd with an additional “incident” taking place on August 4th. The resolution (in part) authorized the President “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.” This would come to justify the deployment of U.S. troops to directly engage the enemies of South Vietnam.

Before this time, South Vietnam was fighting to eliminate a communist insurgency driven by remnants of the Việt Minh. The communist guerillas had agreed to resettle in the North as part of the Geneva Agreement which ended France’s war in Vietnam in 1954. The United States saw their continued attacks on the government of South Vietnam as a violation of that peace. In particular, their support obtained from across national borders was considered to be a part of a strategic plan by the Soviet Union and China to spread communism throughout all of the countries of Southeast Asia.

Even before the withdrawal of France, the United States had supported the anti-communist fight with money, matériel, and military personnel (in the form of advisors). After the French exit, a steady increase in commitment from the U.S was evident. Nevertheless, the signing of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution marks a milestone in American’s involvement making it arguable the start of the U.S. War in Vietnam. Although it would take almost another year for U.S. forces to become clearly engaged, Presidents Johnson’s reaction to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents seems to have set the course inevitably toward that end.

I’m sittin’ here.
Just contemplatin’.
I can’t twist the truth.
It knows no regulation.

The anniversary and the nature of it got me to thinking about how one might portray the Vietnam War as a game. Given the context, I’m thinking purely along the lines of the game focused at the strategic level, taking into account the political and international considerations that drove the course of the conflict.

From a high-level perspective, one might divide America’s war in Vietnam into 4 distinct phases. In the first, the U.S. supported Vietnam’s government with financial and military aid, and with its advisors. While U.S. soldiers were, in fact, engaging in combat and being killed, it wasn’t as part of American combat units, allowing the U.S. to convince itself that this was a conflict purely internal to South Vietnam. Through the presidencies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, the amount of aid to, and the number of Americans in, Vietnam increased. However, the big change, and the transition of the second phase, can be located after the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the subsequent deployment of the U.S. Marines directly and as a unit.

At first, U.S. direct involvement carried with it a measure of popular support and was, from a purely military standpoint, overwhelmingly successful. Johnson and the military were wary of pushing that involvement in ways that would turn the public opinion against them. The U.S. feared casualties as well signs of escalation that be interpreted as increasing military commitment (for example, extending the service time for draftees beyond twelve months), but in general this was a period of an increasing U.S. buildup and, generally, successful operations. Nevertheless, progress in the war defied a clear path toward resolution.

The third phase is probably delineated by the 1968 Tet offensive. While still, ultimately, a military success from the U.S. standpoint, the imagery of Viet Cong forces encroaching on what were assumed by all to be U.S.-controlled cities turned opinion inexorably against continuing engagement in Vietnam. The next phase, then, was what Nixon called “Vietnamization,” the draw-down of American direct involvement to be replaced with support for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). Support was again in the form of money, equipment, and training as well as combat support. For example, a transition to operations where ARVN ground units would be backed by U.S. air power.

The final phase is where that withdrawl is complete, or at least getting close to that point. Where joint operations were no longer in the cards. Clearly this phase would describe the post-Paris accords situation, after Nixon’s resignation, as well as encompassing the final North Vietnamese operation that rolled up South Vietnam and Saigon.

From a gaming perspective, and a strategic-level gaming perspective at that, the question becomes what decisions are there for a player to make within these phases and, perhaps more importantly, what decisions would prompt the transition from one phase to another.

The decision to initially deploy U.S. troops, made by Johnson in early 1965, seems to have been largely driven by events. Having Johnson as president was probably a strong precondition. Although he ran against Goldwater on a “peace” platform, the fact that he saw his legacy as being tied into domestic policy probably set up the preconditions for escalation. A focus on Vietnam was never to be part of his legacy, but given the various triggers in late 1964 and early 1965, his desire to avoid a loss to communism in Vietnam propelled his decision to commit ground troops. You might say his desire to keep it from being a big deal resulted in it being a big deal.

Where this all seems to point is that any strategic Vietnam game beginning much before Spring of 1965 must restrict the player from making the most interesting decision; if and when to commit U.S. ground troops and launch into an “American” war.

Amusingly, if you subscribe to the right set of conspiracy theories, the pivotal events might really be under control of a grand-strategic player after all. Could it be that the real driver behind Kennedy’s assassination was to put a President in office who would be willing to escalate in Vietnam? Was the deployment of the USS Maddox on the DESOTO electronic warfare mission meant to provoke a North Vietnamese response? How about the siting of aviation units in Vietnam at places like Camp Holloway, which would become targets for the Viet Cong? Where actual aggression by the North wasn’t sensational enough, were details fabricated? This rather far-flung theorizing would not only make the resulting game that much harder to swallow, but it is also difficult to see how any fully-engineered attempt to insert American into Vietnam could have moved up the timetable.

So it would only make sense to start our game with our second phase, which must come after our Gulf of Tonkin incident and the 1968 presidential election, at a minimum.

The remaining game will still be an unconventional one, although we do have some nice examples of how it could be done from over the years. Essentially, the U.S. will always be able to draw upon more military power and, ultimately, sufficient military power to prevail in an particular engagement. Yet while it is possible, though insufficient planning, to achieve a military loss as the U.S. it is probably not going to be possible to achieve a military victory. On the U.S. side, the key parameters are going to be some combination of resources and “war weariness.”

Our Vietnam game would rule out, either explicitly or implicitly, a maximal commitment to victory by the United States. American planners considered options such as unfettered access to Laos and Cambodian, an outright invasion of North Korea, or even tactical nuclear weapons. The combination of deteriorating domestic support and the specter of overt Chinese and Soviet intervention would seem to be a large enough deterrent to prevent exercise of these options. This is one of the reasons that rules (those that I’ve come across, any way) simply forbid, for example, crossing units into North Vietnam.

The other reason is one of scope. If a ground invasion of North Vietnam is on the table, then the map needs to include all the potential battlefields in the North in addition to the actual battlefields of the South. Likewise extended areas within Cambodia and Laos need to be available to the player. Continuing on, if U.S. ground forces are going to be straying that close to North Vietnam’s northern border, might it not be necessary to include China in as well? Perhaps having learned a lesson from Korea, our player would react to Chinese direct intervention by taking the fight onto Chinese sovereign territory. It doesn’t take long before we have to consider adding Germany, Korea, Cuba, and any other hotspot of the time as a potential spillover for escalation in Vietnam. Besides the problem of the game expanding without limitations, we have another design concern. A Vietnam game narrative adhering closely to the historical path has the advantage of actual battles, strategies, and events on which to model itself. If all the forces of NATO, the Warsaw Pact, and China are fair game, we are now in the realm of pure speculation.

If for no other reason than to maintain the sanity of the designer, it seems that rules which quickly push the U.S. into its historical de-escalation policy is the right way to tie off such a game on the other end. I will save the consideration of how that might work to another time.